Updated: Jul 1
This week the G7 will descend on a tiny coastal Cornish village, to discuss how to best tackle cross-cutting issues like coronavirus and the climate crisis.
Five months after America’s 46th President was sworn in, Joe Biden will join the summit - his first overseas trip since holding office. I thought this was an opportune time to explore the voice of this new world leader to see what we can learn from him and apply practically within business.
My use of the word ‘new’ here is, of course, a red herring. Joe Biden’s voice is anything but ‘new’. He’s been in politics and making speeches for near-on 50 years. He makes for a wonderful study and, for this article, I examine some of his widely publicised and lesser-known speeches from his long career to pinpoint those moments where he can offer us useful insight.
A leader emerges
Biden was the youngest ever person elected to the Senate – just turning 30 when he secured his seat by 3,000 votes back in 1972. In one of his first interviews afterwards, a youthful Biden is quizzed about his win at such a young age.
Pick it up at 1 minute 8 seconds (1:08). He’s clearly thought about his surroundings. His location has, no doubt, been carefully selected to show he’s comfortable at this desk and in this environment.
Then watch again at 1:13. See how he leans right in towards the interviewer, lessening the gap between them. His body language here suggests he’s fully engaged in the conversation. But also look at what happens because he leans forward. His body is no longer centred.
While he appears confident, the gently swinging chair behind him at 1:17 is indicative of nerves – the swinging motion being a way to sooth and steady them. You can avoid this from happening to you by sitting right at the back of your chair and firmly planting your feet hip width apart directly under your knees. This will help you sit up straight and expand your lung capacity so you’ll both look and sound more confident.
A world leader is born
For contrast I’m going to jump right forward now to the first speech he gives as President.
This time he’s standing, and from the outset we see two things that have, over the years, established themselves as Biden trademarks. Firstly, the confident use of his hand gestures. See how his arms are wide open here, almost welcoming people in. Then there’s that disarming smile.
At 0:09 his body language reinforces something that seems to have been a constant from his very first interview – giving his full attention to and making a direct connection with those he’s addressing. Look at how he turns away from the microphone towards Vice President Harris when mentioning her.
At 0:44 we hear him say: “Today, we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause.” Biden offers a clue here that every speaker should know - regardless of whether you are a President, a Programme Director, a Product Manager, or a Publicity Assistant – it’s never about you, it's always about them (your audience).
Also notice his contrasting use of volume between 0:44-1:00 versus 10:09-10:30. By lowering his volume, he’s using how he says something to mirror the content of what he’s saying.
This contrasting volume gives vocal variety to his overall speech. And while we can’t see his audience, we know they are likely leaning in to hear him. As long as you are not so quiet as to be inaudible, speaking softly can be an effective device for drawing your audience in.
And finally notice how, within this hushed section at 10:20 and 10:27, he punctuates the words ‘we’ and ‘silence’. He’s effectively using his pitch here to stress and draw attention to these words. What this demonstrates is that even if you are naturally softly spoken, you can use different elements of voice to create variety, which heightens listener interest.
Underconfidence from a leader
It’s hard to believe then that not too long after this speech, Biden gave another, this time a press conference - his first from the Oval Office. This event should have had a celebratory feel. Biden was marking having signed 28 executive orders in just two weeks, overtaking the record holder, President Roosevelt. (It took Roosevelt a month to sign that same number.)
Yet this might just be one of the best examples of a worst speech ever given. It’s a good reminder that no matter how experienced a presenter you are, preparation and personal brand are critical to performance.
You can pick the speech up at any time. It’s worth noting here that Biden is intentionally making a statement by wearing his mask but, with the benefit of hindsight, I doubt he’d be keen to repeat this experience. His concern that his mask is slipping at 1:07, 1:16, 1:37, and 2:26 serves as a helpful reminder about the minefield of using props.
This clip shows how hard communicating well from behind a mask can be. For as well as muting his tone and muffling his words, almost to the point of their being inaudible, what’s also masked here is Biden’s trademark warm and easy smile.
The mask is clearly impacting his usual confidence. Just look at his reliance on his cue cards (which can be effective when used well), but that isn’t what happens at 0:30. For the best part of 10 seconds, he barely looks up, almost reading them. It’s as though he’s forgotten he’s speaking to a televised audience.
A leader defeated
In contrast, let's rewind now to 1987, to what could have been a stilted speech for what is a tough time for any leader… defeat.
We see Biden speaking after his first run for the Presidency. There is nothing at all awkward about his words, his tone, or his body language, which are all confident - particularly his eye contact with his audience.
Pick it up at 0:14 and you’ll hear him repeat the phrase ‘I’ll be there’. And, true to his word, he was. It would take another 44 years' perseverance and resilience to shake off another failed Presidential run, before becoming the country’s oldest President at age 78. In this speech, at 0:36, he demonstrates how to better use cue cards than in the previous clip. Then at 0:45 he employs metaphor to paint a visually uplifting picture - about how great America’s future will be and his ongoing role to make it so.
Vocal courage and leadership
What heartens me more than anything else though about the voice of this world leader is that his early life saw him speak with a stammer.
Stuttered or stammered speech is believed to affect around 3% of the world’s population and, in this final clip, Biden openly shares how he overcame his stutter. This interview offers valuable insight for every speaker because Biden talks about how he’s spent his whole life learning to control his speech.
Today you are hard pushed to hear him stammer. The entire 10-minute clip really is worth a watch, but if you can’t spare the time pick it up at 0:25-0:29 where he demonstrates how he used to talk.
Then at 3:35-4:05 he offers a scripting technique for anyone looking to slow their pace. Again, what he says here and how he says it are perfectly in unison. While he doesn’t mention the word ‘pace’ he’s talking about keeping things slow, which mirrors his speech pattern exactly.
At 5:42-5:58 we see something that is common to Biden’s many speeches - that’s an effective use of personal storytelling. Storytelling would make for a whole other blog – probably a series - but Biden often relays a story with a moral from the perspective of his mum, dad, or grandparents. He uses this technique to make himself more personable. Despite running for President and his campaign positioning him as ‘Joe Biden’ it’s clear from what he says that he wants to reinforce he’s just like you and me. Listen to how he refers to himself here as ‘Joey’ on multiple occasions in quick succession. It’s a great rhetorical device for getting his audience on side and to identify with him.
And finally, at 6:06, I’d endorse his great advice for anyone looking to be a better listener and leader: ‘Don’t finish someone’s…’
Susan Room is an International Coaching Federation (ICF) Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and holds a Masters in Voice Studies with distinction from the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This means she's one of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching. Her unique approach sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work. Susan offers virtual group programmes and workshops - valuable to those at every career stage. Her new two-hour interactive ‘voice and presentation skills’ workshop encompasses business storytelling. She also works with corporate leaders and high potential executives on a 121 basis.